Sibos 2014: SWIFT Chief’s Three Key Lessons about Payments

Speaking during an opening session at Sibos 2014 on cryptocurrenices, Leibbrandt said that experience has taught him the following basic lessons about payments:

  1. When a new payment mechanism arises, it tends to be very successful with a new niche that has not been served before: “We’ve seen it with PayPal, which is the real source of eBay’s success,” Leibbrandt said. “We’ve seen it in Kenya with mPesa; there was nothing out there and mPesa was successful. I would argue you’ve seen it with Bitcoin, serving on the internet – some of the darker side, perhaps – but a niche that has not been fulfilled until now.” The only problem is that it can often be difficult for new payment mechanisms to get out of that niche, he added – but as PayPal and mPesa have proved, it is possible.
  2. Once infrastructures are installed, they tend to prove resilient: “We see many new technologies leveraging existing infrastructures, so don’t count them out,” Leibbrandt said. He called Apple ‘brilliant’ for its decision to partner with Visa, MasterCard and American Express on Apply Pay, rather than strike out completely on its own.
  3. Cryptocurrencies might not be interested in governments, but governments are really interested in money: “It is the stuff that makes economies go, and if it blows up, they have a pretty big issue,” commented Leibbrandt. “It’s a way to police; it’s a law enforcement tool. So you’ll find governments very interested in money; discount that at your peril.”

Leibbrandt, who admitted to being “absolutely fascinated” with Bitcoin, was asked whether he sees cryptocurrencies as disruptive to SWIFT’s core business. He agreed that it is, but that does not faze him.

“I think it’s a potentially disruptive technology for everything that is centralised,” he said. “It is the ultimate way to run things in a distributed way. It is potentially disruptive but I don’t expect it to be disruptive in next 10 to 20 years. But we’re very actively looking at it and we’ll see how we can use it in some of the applications that we have that are more peer-to-peer.”

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